Whatever Sells

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The bigoted vendetta waged by America’s news media and institutions against youth has entered an even uglier phase: outright fabrication.

Endless “teen crises” trumpeted by today’s media – pharmaceutical epidemics, girls’ drinking, depression, “hooking up,” whatever panic-du-jour the next money-grubbing sleazebag sells to journalists – are simply made up. They are fraudulent advertisements masked as news stories.

Among hundreds of examples, news outlets from The Washington Post and NBC News to local press blare mindlessly identical stories of cities imperiled by surging “youth violence,” followed by blatant pitches by cops and programs for more bucks. “Minneapolis police estimate that this year, juveniles will account for 63 percent of all suspects in violent and property offenses there, up from 45 percent in 2002,” screamed USA Today in a story so lunatic as to question the sanity of the reporters and editors.

Malarkey. Minneapolis Police reports show juvenile crime has declined for four straight years, through mid-2006, and accounts for only a small fraction of total crimes there. Washington police reports show youth homicide at a record low. Readily available police tabulations show that in cities the press named, youth crime either is falling or shows an increase in a few offense categories that is dwarfed by rising crime among adults. In no case are youth driving violence trends.

Youth problems that do exist are best addressed by targeted measures, not mass panic. How did we degenerate into a culture of greedy interests that spread vicious lies about young people while manifesting such callousness to real dangers?

What have Congress and the White House done for American children suffering from hunger (400,000)? Homelessness (1.3 million children last year)? Brutality at home (200,000 confirmed victims of violent and sexual abuses by parents and caretakers last year)? Crushing destitution (5.2 million children in families with incomes less than half the meager poverty level)?

Nothing, except to make things worse. But legislators rushed emergency legislation to force libraries and schools to censor teenagers’ Internet social sites as if the Four Horsemen were galloping across MySpace.

What kind of society makes policy and media heroes of primitive, youth-fearing bigots like Northeastern University’s James Alan Fox, whose racist, 19th-century doctrines of innate adolescent criminality generate ludicrously hyped crime scares? Or Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a popular Harvard School of Public Health grandstander, who clarions four “waves” of “youth violence”: inner-city, then suburban and rural, then girls, and now “a rising incidence of violent behavior among very young children”?

Incredible rubbish. Prothrow-Stith’s first “wave” ebbed more than a decade ago, and the last three never happened. The latest FBI reports show that violence by children, by suburban/rural youth and by girls are at their lowest levels in decades. Youths committed just 4.8 percent of all murders in 2004, the smallest proportion ever recorded.

Meanwhile, middle-aged crime has exploded right in Fox’s and Prothrow-Stith’s back yards. In Boston last year, 1,700 people age 40 and older were arrested for serious felonies, which includes arrests for violent crime (up 27 percent in that age group since 2001) and property offenses (up 43 percent over the same span). In California, felony arrests of 40- to 59-year-olds leaped from 84,000 in 2000 to 116,000 in 2005.

These are the parents! But Fox, Prothrow-Stith and media-savvy “experts” simply can’t comprehend any fact that challenges their antiquated prejudices that only young people commit crime.

Why do demagogues, con artists and fossils dominate youth-issue discussion today? Because youth policy, like most social policy, has become thoroughly privatized. It’s about corporate marketing, not science.

Interest groups and agencies, like beer and fashion advertisers, invest heavily in visceral icons designed to stimulate artificial needs: Sexy seventh-graders! Savage girls! Killer tots next door! Pill-popping monsters stealing grandma’s meds! Like commercial hucksters, youth-fearing alarmists brandish hot-button anecdotes and slanted “facts” to sell superficial cure-alls: books, programs, grants, ideologies and themselves.

They avoid the most critical realities afflicting youth: poverty, domestic violence, massive increases in parents’ drug abuse and crime. Reality doesn’t sell.

Youth-crisis mongers thrive on time-tested anxieties. They resurrect the same teen-sex cliches that Chicago educators and puritan Anthony Comstock had exhausted by 1915; the same savage-adolescent myths that were solidly debunked by 1920; the same “crime-prone population” racism that school sociologists in Chicago demolished 80 years ago; the same “war on drugs” hysteria that linked the Chinese and opium in 1880, black men and cocaine in 1916, and Mexicans and marijuana in 1937.

They exploit irrational public fears of poorer, darker youth corrupting middle-class “values.” Their ancient fear-driven dogmas, veering further from reality, require propping up with ever-more outlandish falsehoods.

Modern realities are new and require flexible, dynamic thinking. Young people face the challenge of forging a multicultural, multiracial society – a challenge made immensely more difficult by their elders’ endless, phony panics against today’s diverse younger generation.